Literature and “Anti-Literature” in Jewish Diaspora Writing

front of synagogue


In my last blog post, I briefly discussed the exile-writing of Spanish Republican expatriates in the first half of the twentieth century. The works I analyzed were all works of formally-constituted literature– poems, novels, poetry collections. This ‘formally-constituted literature’ is self-aware of its own literary status: it makes use of existing (and codified) literary forms (i.e novels, sonnets, odes), and it intervenes actively and deliberately in the ideological and aesthetic terrain of formal literature.

In preparing for this month’s blog post, I asked myself: What of the exile-writing that does not insert itself into that exclusive sphere of global literature? What of the exile-writing that is produced by exiles of a certain group for (and exclusively for) other exiles of the same group? Is there not an exile-writing that is actually best understood as anti-literary, in that it expresses a profound distrust for literary form, for abstraction, for symbolism, and instead concerns itself with pragmatic questions about the everyday labor of survival? Can we identify two ideologically-counterposed currents in exile-writing– the literary and the anti-literary; the outward-looking and the inward-looking– or is there in fact a more fluid relationship at work? Or is there only one current– the literary production of the exiled– and formal constraints and social pressures subdivide and segregate the products of this literary momentum into these counterposed categories we may identify as ‘literary’ and ‘non-’ (or anti-)?


So I looked for a way to ground these questions in a particular body of texts, and discovered a fascinating set of documents: the letters to the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, at one time one of the highest-circulating newspapers in New York City, and a newspaper produced by the Jewish exile/expatriate community of the Lower East Side.

Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, Yiddish-speaking readers of the Forward wrote letters to a weekly advice column called “A Bintel Brief.” (These letters are helpfully compiled and translated to English in Isaac Metzker’s A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward.) These letters are valuable not only because they offer unique insight into the anxieties and priorities of a particularly expansive and socially prominent exile community, but also because the history of “A Bintel Brief” suggests that the production of exile-writing is a collaborative and collective exercise. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, when “A Bintel Brief” was at the height of its cultural prominence but illiteracy was commonplace, there existed readers- and writers-for-hire who would set up shop like shoe-shiners on the streets of the Lower East Side, offering to read the column aloud for a fee and inviting passersby to dictate letters to the newspaper: a telling social tableau, a flesh-and-blood illustration of the capacity for rigidly-bordered literary modes such as exile writing to create self-reproducing intellectual economies, which exist not only on the page and on the shelf but in the very lived systems of the communities they serve.


Also interesting to note is the letters’ almost unanimous distrust of formal intellectual or literary culture. The letters routinely express amusement, displeasure, even disdain for the Jewish intellectuals whose writings would have populated the other pages of the newspaper; the letter-writers mention out-of-touch poets who have little more tact than beggars, preachy Socialists pushing pamphlets into their unwilling hands (perhaps already filled with laundry or groceries), head-in-the-clouds Zionists shouting about paradise in Palestine while the letter-writers can hardly even imagine leaving the Lower East Side for the Bronx.

However, in the 1960’s, when “A Bintel Brief” was still very much alive on the backpage of the Forward and in the imaginations of the New York Jewry, Isaac Bashevis Singer was beginning to publish-in-serial the novel that would become Enemies: A Love Story, one of the most famous novels ever written by a Jewish author in the US, and a novel that emphatically announced the arrival of a formal, even canonize-able, American-Jewish literary tradition. And Singer serialized Enemies: A Love Story in the Jewish Daily Forward, the same publication which continued to publish letters from readers (many of them holocaust survivors, much like the characters in Singer’s novel), almost all of which expressed (or alluded to) a multi-generational distrust of formal literary/intellectual production. In reading Enemies: A Love Story and the letters to “A Bintel Brief” together, we observe a literal front-page / back-page relationship; Singer’s formal literature in front, the collectively produced anti-literature of “A Bintel Brief “in the back.